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City Council wants options for new bus station, but has hired a firm that's decided underground is best

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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The city has proposed tearing down the 27-year-old Charlotte Transportation Center and placing it underground.

Charlotte’s main bus station sits on prime real estate: across from the Spectrum Center and two blocks from Trade Steet and Tryon Street.

So the city and a developer, Charlotte-based White Point Partners, had an idea: Why waste that great location on only buses?

Why not demolish the 27-year-old station and build a new one underground? Doing this would free up space for a new tower with restaurants, offices and stores and create a walkable festival district on Brevard Street.

In a presentation to City Council in June, Charlotte Area Transit System chief executive John Lewis said a new underground bus station would benefit passengers.

“Think more about it like an airline terminal, where we have controlled access for our customers,” Lewis said. “We can have them in temperature-controlled areas with the amenities that are needed to support this new vision.”

And Charlotte's Economic Development Director, Tracy Dodson, showed City Council members renderings of the new underground station. It showed passengers riding an escalator through what she called an “oculus” to reach the buses.

Lewis told City Council members that other transit systems have also built underground stations.

But some members are concerned about whether an underground bus station is in the best interests of passengers.

At-Large City Council member Braxton Winston said just because other cities have built underground stations doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

“I don’t think the suggestion that transit has been doing something all over the country for a long time is sufficient — especially when you put an equity lens on the way transit has been developed,” he said back in June.

That equity lens shows that nearly 80% of Charlotte bus riders are Black, and nearly half make less than $25,000 a year, according to the city.

Winston said underground bus stations — or enclosed stations, like New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal — aren’t welcoming places.

“Whether it’s below ground or whether it’s a bus facility above ground that is semi-enclosed, it is dirty. It is harsh,” he said.

It’s possible that placing a bus station out of sight could make existing public safety problems at the bus station worse.

In Denver, CO, a $200 million underground bus station opened in 2014 but was called a “lawless hellhole” in December by the head of the local transit union. The station has become a place for people to use illegal drugs and those without housing to sleep, prompting a crackdown by the city.

Last week, city staff in Charlotte asked City Council members to approve a $2.9 million design contract for the underground station. City Council member Julie Eiselt asked whether engineers would provide multiple options or if they would recommend the same underground proposal from June.

“Because if that’s what it is, I can’t support it,” Eiselt said.

Faced with opposition, the city changed its message. Officials said they haven’t decided whether the station should be built below ground or at street level. Lewis said City Council members will get new options to consider.

Charlotte City Council ultimately approved the $2.9 million contract in an 8-2 vote.

But City Council members hired WPTP Brevard, which shares the same address and executives as White Point Partners, the developer who did the original design work for the underground bus station earlier this year.

Dimple Ajmera and other City Council members say they didn’t realize they hired essentially the same firm.

“I was not aware of that,” she said. “Why is not a third party doing a study?”

Former CATS executive Ron Tober doesn’t support placing the bus station underground. He said the city should have hired an outside consultant — who isn’t working with the developer — to evaluate the pros and cons of placing the bus station underground versus building a new one at street level.

Transit consultant Steve Yaffe, of Charlotte, agrees. He says having the developer make that decision introduces “bias” in the decision, since they may be focused on what’s best for the tower — not necessarily the transit system.

The City of Charlotte and White Point Partners declined to be interviewed for this story.

In June, Charlotte's Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson said White Point Partners had carefully studied the issue.

“We spent significant time looking at what was the most appropriate location for the bus station,” she told City Council members. “We looked at above grade so that it met at grade with the blue line. We looked at grade for trade street, and then we looked at below grade and have spent significant time looking at the engineering of this to make sure it can work.”

To sum that up, City Council members want different options but they hired the same firm that has already decided what’s best.

City Council member Ed Driggs voted against the contract because he said city officials hadn’t provided enough information.

“And then (the city comes) back with a request for $2.9 million dollars,” Driggs said. “To a company that out may well have other priorities or agendas. It doesn’t look good.”

The city said the design work for the bus station may reach $18 million. Charlotte has received a $15 million federal grant for the new bus station.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.